Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
Maryse Condé (kohn-day) was born in the West Indies to Auguste and Jeanne Quidal Boucolon. She spent eight years of her adult life teaching in Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal and then took up residence in Paris, save for two years in London working for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC, 1968-1970). Fascinated by the political upheavals in the emerging independent countries of Africa, she focused her attention on them and on the effect such transitions have on the lives of common citizens. Condé is extraordinarily well versed in African history and knows its folklore intimately.
Maryse Boucolon married Mamadou Condé in 1958 and had three children with him. A year after they divorced in 1981, she married Richard Philcox, the translator of most of her novels. With him, she translated into French Eric Williams’s From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492-1969 (1970).
During the years she spent in Africa, many African nations, long possessions of European countries, gained their independence. Many demagogues, motivated largely by visions of personal gain, grasped power, often to the considerable detriment of their people.
When Condé left Africa, she went first to London to serve in the French Services of the BBC, then gravitated to Paris, where she taught while working for the doctorate that the University of Paris awarded her in 1976. Aside from lecture trips and occasional writer-in-resident stints in the United States and the West Indies, she spent her life in Paris until 1989, when she took a position as professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1992 she moved to the University of Maryland, College Park, and in 1995 to Columbia University, where she also became the chairperson of the French and Francophone Institute in 1997. She has also taught at California Institute of Technology, the University of Virginia, and Harvard University.
It was in Paris that she wrote her first novel, Hérémakhonon. In this novel Condé deals with a problem that pervades much of her writing: She looks at where people cast their lots in transitional politics when their way of life comes into conflict with the dislocations that inevitably occur when their countries succumb to European and American cultural influences. The novel’s protagonist, Veronica, bears a strong resemblance to Condé in that she is a Paris-educated woman from Guadeloupe who works in Hérémakhonon.
Veronica reflects on her life in the West Indies and in Paris. She takes as her lover Ibrahim Sory, who is engaged in an ideological struggle with Saliou, an associate of Veronica at the institute where she teaches. Saliou, a revolutionary, is a figurehead for the new dictator, Mwalimwana. Although Veronica never fully understands the struggle between Sory and Saliou, she is drawn into it through her association with each. Her stay in Hérémakhonon ends abruptly because of political pressures. In this novel, as in her play Dieu nous l’a donne, Condé writes of a brewing political revolt and expresses her conviction that single leaders cannot create revolutions: A revolution can come about only when a whole populace wills it.
In her next novel, A Season in Rihata, Condé writes of an African country rent by internal political strife. She focuses on a large socially and politically complex family in a West African country. Told largely through the eyes of one prominent male member of this family, with salient insights from other members, the novel deals with questions of integrity and morality and with the inroads that political transitions make upon personal codes of ethics.
In her two Segu novels Condé writes historically about Ségou, the West African kingdom that is now Mali, from 1797 to 1860. The novels cover a trying period in the lives of the royal family, whose way of life is being eroded by encroaching European colonization, as well as by a slave trade that threatens the security of the populace. Christianity and Islam are fast replacing the animistic religions indigenous to the region. In these two novels Condé demonstrates her comprehensive grasp of African history, culture, and folklore.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem deals with an African problem, slavery, but is not set in Africa. Rather, Tituba, a historical figure, is born on a slave ship bound for Barbados. As an adult, she is sold with her husband, John Indian, to a Puritan minister, John Parris, who takes them to Salem, Massachusetts. He eventually sells Tituba to Benjamin Cohen, a Jew, who ultimately sets her free. She joins a band of rebels, however, rather than returning to Barbados and is convicted of witchcraft, for which she is hanged.
Tree of Life moves between Harlem, Haiti, Guadeloupe, and France in a multigenerational tale of one family’s rise from poverty to wealth. Condé uses a plot formula that has become stale through overuse by the writers of popular potboilers, yet she illustrates that in the right hands this rags-to-riches story can encompass a wide range of social and cultural commentary. Crossing the Mangrove begins with the wake of the enigmatic Francis Sancher, who has left a mark on everyone with whom he interacted in Guadeloupe. The figure of Sancher serves as a focal point for the numerous attendees at his wake to recount their lives and concerns in mourning or celebrating his life.
Like Tree of Life, The Last of the African Kings depicts history through the fortunes of a family. It begins with an African king, Behanzin, who opposes French colonization of his land and is exiled to Martinique. Condé traces the fates of his offspring as they spread out through the Caribbean and the United States, offering a microcosm of the African diaspora. Windward Heights, a historical novel, recasts the story of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) in eighteenth and nineteenth century Guadeloupe, adding a layer of complexity in her exploration of race and color in addition to social class and obsession.
Desirada, which won the Prix Carbet de la Caraibe in 1998, is another story of alienation. The central figure is Marie-Noelle, a girl raised in Guadeloupe until she is summoned to France at the age of ten by her birth mother. Her mother is nonetheless cold and indifferent to her, and Marie-Noelle tries to discover the truth of her birth and the identity of her father. She is offered radically differing stories by her mother and grandmother, and ultimately realizes that she will never be quite sure of who she is, and never quite at home in any of the places—Guadeloupe, France, or the United States—where she lives.
The range of Condé’s writing is impressive. She has published plays, short stories, literary criticism, juvenile literature, and plays. She has edited anthologies and published a notable translation. Her work is consistently accurate historically and deft stylistically.
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